Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Good and Gentle Heart

You do not need to have been born on a Kansas farm, or any farm anywhere, to consider one little hen about as valuable as a single supermarket egg. Though chickens have sustained human beings with their flesh and their eggs for centuries, humans simply do not place much value on chickens.

In America, chickens do not even warrant protection under the laws against inhumane treatment that offer other farm animals a bare minimum of protection against torture and abuse. It is permissible to confine chickens in cages so small that the hens can never stand all the way up, or ever stretch their wings. Their feet never touch the ground. They never see the light of day. It is legal and common to debeak pullets so they can be crowded together even more unnaturally and inhumanely in order to make the most profit from their suffering and their sacrifice. The horrible treatment of chickens is corporate farming abuse at its "best". And no one cares.

Raising my chickens reminds me of my humble grandmother, a farm wife who raised chickens to help feed her family and to bring in a bit of extra egg money. I spent a lot of time with Grandma, "helping" her care for her flock. She showed me how to scoop up the busy little bantam hens and cradle them until they felt secure so I could pet them. The little hens seemed to enjoy it and would rest quietly in my arms. I also ate countless delicious fried chicken dinners at Grandma's table, chickens she raised from peeps.

Chickens were a valuable part of farm life. They were at least important enough to my grandparents that our city dog, caught with a dead chicken in his mouth, whether he killed it or not, was subject to severe censure. But no chicken would have ever been taken to the veterinarian. That would have been ridiculous, and silly, and an unthinkable expense. In those days, a veterinarian likely would not have even wasted his time on a chicken except to diagnose infectious disease that threatened all the chickens in the area. Only crazy people would do such a thing as take a chicken to the vet, because, in the first consideration, there was no need for it. If a chicken was suffering, Grandpa would have chopped its head off, mercifully ending its life.

All that to say....

One of my little white hens was on the ground yesterday morning. I thought she had a broken back or a broken leg judging from the way she was unable to walk. She was defenseless. Those damnable roosters where sexually assaulting her, then viciously pecking her head and eyes -normal behavior for chicken society, but revolting to me. I angrily shooed those roosters away and scooped her up. I placed her in a five gallon bucket. Too squeamish to check her for specific injuries, I had no time left to do anything but place the bucket safely on the back porch and leave for work.

Later, I called my veterinarian's office to ask if he was willing to take a look at the hen after I got off work. If she only had a broken leg and it could be set, I would pay for that. If she was damaged beyond repair, he could euthanize her. I would not be able to chop her head off even though I do have a shiny new ax.

Yes, I felt silly carrying a chicken in a bucket into a veterinarian's office. She is not a show chicken, or a big egg production hen, or an exotic hobby breed. She did not even have a name. None of that mattered to Dr. J. Not only did he not laugh at me (to my face) he gently and knowledgeably examined her legs, wings, and neck for fractures. He checked her for an impacted crop, for being egg bound, and took her temperature. He asked all the questions a vet asks, just as if she was as important as a dog, or a cow, or a horse. He admitted he had very little knowledge of chickens, or birds in general. (Not much call for veterinarian services for backyard hobby chickens in Kansas - everyone has an ax.) But, if I had the time, he was willing to read his vet school notes, and that is what he did.

The poor little hen was alert, but one eye was swollen shut from the brutality of the roosters. She had cuts on both sides of her head and blood on her feathers and face. She was dirty and she looked so terrible in the fluorescent lights of the examining room. A lesser man, a man with a big professional ego, would never have bothered with a dirty, stinky, ill bird about as valuable to society as a pigeon.

When it was clear that the hen was gravely ill, I told Dr. J to go ahead and put her down. No sense taking up more of his valuable time - it was after closing by then. He took pity on the little hen. His suggestion was to intubate her in order to give her fluids. If that revived her, I could take her home. She might pull through and survive whatever had afflicted her so suddenly.

Dr. J and his assistant Sam carefully held and intubated the little hen. I had to pour the fluids into the funnel - three full grown adults to get about a tablespoon of fluid into a chicken that likely does not weigh one full pound! Silly as it was, it touched my heart.

It did seem to revive the hen, just a tiny bit. Dr. J offered to keep her through the night and give her another "feeding" the next day if she was still alive. If there was no improvement, then he would euthanize her. Once decided, he even asked Sam to clean the little hen's wounds. They kept her overnight and fed her again. Unfortunately, her condition did not improve, so the good doctor euthanized her, putting an end to the suffering. I do not know how much he will charge for his services but I will not complain. I will gladly pay it.

It is not that my heart was broken over this nameless little hen - not the way it would be if it was, God forbid, the Dukenator or one of my horses. Rather, it is that I intend to care for these chickens to the best of my ability. It is my attempt to offset the debt for every chicken breast I have eaten that came from a corporate farm chicken. The meat eaten at Grandma's table came from chickens that never suffered at the hands of human beings.

I concern myself over the welfare of these little chickens in return for every production egg I have thoughtlessly eaten that was laid by a hen who lived her entire life without an upper beak - who never got to fly - or hatch a clutch of eggs - or grub insects out of the good earth. I owe these chickens now in my care at least the smallest gesture of human kindess, and the act of valuing of their lives. I acknowledge the chicken's great generosity toward the human species. And luckily for me and the little hen, Dr. J went along with that effort.


Anonymous said...

You have gone above and beyond the call in caring for your chickens and they are lucky to have you as their caretaker. We will miss her as well.

Li'l Ned said...

Oh sweet Jackie, your post brought tears to my eyes. Bless you for caring for these chicks, for honoring the ill treatment of so many other, less fortunate hens. The spirit of chickens will surely take notice and of course your own ladies will carry on in their inimitable chickenish ways.